Review of Robert Crawford & Mike Imlah, eds,
The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (2000)
We are so used to the phenomenon of English being an international language, or most people’s first choice of a second language, that we don’t reflect on how extraordinary it is. I’m not talking of the linguistic complacency that follows from finding English-speakers more or less everywhere these days. Nor of the fact that any moderately interesting book in English will find readers (and reviewers) not only in America and Australia but in Scandinavia and France and Chile – something that doesn’t happen, for example, for writers in Portuguese or Spanish, or Dutch. No, the most extraordinary aspect of world English is the number of movements of political and cultural resistance that have had to express their nationalism in English.
It’s often said to have begun in America. But that revolution was an offshoot of the enlightenment. It was in Haiti and LatinAmerica that the cultural-nationalist predicament was most fully experienced in the New World – Toussaint L’Ouverture rebelling in French and Simon Bolivar in Spanish. Almost simultaneously, Irish and Indian nationalists began stealing the emperor’s clothes. Since then, in the British Caribbean, and Malaysia and Africa, English has been in country after country the language of cultural resistance and national independence. Local languages have always had a part in this, fighting back hard with their own agenda, and infiltrating the local versions of English to form krios of their own. Yet English has been made to appear modernising, unifying and ‘national’, while the local languages have seemed backward-looking and divisive. In Zambia, for example, with its seven recognised local languages and its seventy-nine so-called ‘tribes’, the status of English is secure. More precisely, it is after English is secure that the local languages can be cultivated.